When self-driving cars get here, they’ll make our commutes more efficient and allow us to get the kids to soccer practice without disrupting mom and dad’s work days. They’ll conserve resources, boost mobility for seniors and others who can’t, and make deadly traffic accidents all but disappear. It’s all great stuff.
But the impact of self-driving cars will go deeper than even that, according to researchers at the Illinois Institute of Technology, who’ve begun to study the potential ultra-long-range impacts of self-driving cars on urban environments. Everything from sidewalks and curbs to streets, building designs, urban layouts, and living patterns will change as computers take the wheel.
“We’re looking at the broader urban effects—and urban opportunities—of this technology,” says Illinois Tech architect Marshall Brown, one of the team members in the Chicago school’s Driverless Cities Project. “It’s in the news a lot, but nobody’s been discussing what it will actually do to cities.”
Just six percent of long-range transportation plans in major US cities are factoring the impact of autonomous cars, according to a report released in the fall by the National League of Cities. That’s a bad sign. “Even though driverless cars may be shoehorned to fit the traditional urban environment in the short term, it won’t be a long-term solution for maximizing potential benefits,” says Lili Du, an assistant professor of transportation engineering at Illinois Tech.
The Driverless Cities Project is developing a comprehensive answer, folding in urban design, landscape architecture, transportation engineering, sociology, urban networks, and planning law. (The project is a finalist for the university’s $1 million Nayar Prize for research with meaningful social impacts.) The idea is to explore current research around the country, along with the more forward-thinking planning initiatives, and fold in their own studies to create a suite of guidelines—including model urban codes that determine so much about city environments—for municipalities to incorporate into their planning.
We want to ask, what kind of world do we want, and how do we leverage this technology to get there? Illinois Institute of Technology Architect Marshall Brown
There’s plenty to consider. For example, we don’t know how parking will work for autonomous vehicles. Should cities be building lots outside urban centers? Is parking still necessary at all? Wireless vehicle-to-vehicle communication will lets cars pack together more tightly, which raises questions about how we fit them onto our streets.
Their autonomous operation alone can obviate the need for traffic signals and road signs. That’ll go a long way toward beautifying city streets, Marshall says, but brings up other problems regarding pedestrian safety, speed limits, roadway design, and the need for and sizes of driveways and curbs. Even further, vehicle ownership and usage patterns will change, once we’re able to summon an autonomous car through an app and then shoo it away once it delivers us at our destination. Who’s going to own and operate those cars, and what will they do when not serving their owners? Park in the ‘burbs? Infinite-Uber-loop?
It’s not an easy task, particularly because the technology is unprecedented and developing quickly. Researchers don’t even know yet, for instance, what autonomous cars will do to traffic volume. Marshall says that can swing either way. “There are a lot of unknowns and divergent scenarios.” Car-sharing could cut down traffic, allowing for smaller streets and parking lots. Or, cars could become cheaper than ever and stay in circulation, increasing congestion, Marshall says. “The weird irony of driverless cars is that more people might drive.”
The potential social and economic benefits can be vast. Brown is hopeful the changes will broaden economic opportunity for residents who’ve been hamstrung by not owning a car or have been stuck with unreliable public transport, while Du sees big quality-of-life and environmental gains.
“The precision of digitally controlled vehicles may also allow reductions in street width—so parking lanes, lots, and garages could be eliminated,” Du says. That lets you reduce how much of a city is covered in pavement, helping with water run-off and heat island issues. The specter of autonomous cars also changes how you distribute parking lots, fueling stations, and electric vehicle chargers. That comes with corresponding changes in urban land use and infrastructure design.
The team, Du says, could help reinvent transportation infrastructure as human infrastructure for the 21st century. This will be a colossal shift. For the past century, urban environments have been designed around cars. As they are freed up to improve the human experience rather than merely manage traffic flow, cities could develop a whole new feel.
Getting there will be fraught with political controversy—and roadblocks if solutions don’t emerge for, say, newly unused parking garages—and cars will still very much determine where and how we live, Brown says. But this time it will spring from a more positive perspective. If you can safely rocket over highways at 150 mph, for instance, how would you build your life around that kind of commuting power? Live in Philly and work in Baltimore? Easy. Your commute time might be the same as it is now, but you’ll cover far more ground with less stress, while working, dozing, or reading.
Navigating these questions now, Brown says, will ensure cities can capitalize on these innovations. It will also help prevent robots from becoming our virtual overlords. “We’re trying to avoid technological determinism,” he says. “There’s the basic question of what will driverless cars do. But we want to ask what kind of world do we want, and how do we leverage this technology to get there?” There’s something to be said for staying in the driver’s seat.